The Abbess of Crewe if a very short book – just 128 pages – but there’s an awful lot going on.
In a convent in the north of England the Abbess of Crewe is dying. And so there will be an election. Who will be the new abbess?
Alexandra thinks the position is hers by rights. She is tall, elegant and aristocratic and she has been sub prioress. Definitely the heir apparent. And, usefully, she introduced electronic surveillance to the convent so she knows exactly what is going on.
But Alexandra has a rival. A very different rival. Felicity is small, plump and common and has a simple vision. All you need is love. Well she is having an affair with a Jesuit priest.
Now remember that Alexandra sees everything. She knows that Felicity has a casket where she keeps her love letters. And so her eager supporters, Walburga and Mildred, arrange a burglary.
Two young Jesuits perform a reconnaissance and bring back Felicity’s silver thimble as proof of their success. But Felicity notices the loss and she is prepared for them when they come back for the letters. She flees from the convent, alerts the authorities and becomes a media celebrity.
Will Alexandra, the newly elected abbess, be called to account? Well what do you think? Does this sound familiar?
Maybe it would help if I told you that the Abbess of Crewe was written in 1974? Yes, Muriel Spark has written a wonderful satire of Watergate.
It’s brilliantly done. The story stands up in its own right as well as mirroring real events. And it’s packed full of intrigue, gossip and great wit. So clever and so funny.
And yet this little book seems to have slipped through the net in the most recent round of Muriel Spark reissues. Well, it’s not her greatest work – some references are dated and the brevity and the need to mirror real events mean that it can’t quite hit the heights of her best books – but Muriel Spark a little off her best is still quite remarkable.
The Abbess of Crewe is a fine piece of writing, a striking period piece, and an entertainment with much to say. Hopefully a new edition will see the light of day before too long.